It seems like the phrase “3D Printing” is increasingly common. Almost everything from buildings, car parts, reproductions of historic artifacts, spacecraft components, toys, and even replacement human organs are being made with 3D Printing these days! Considering how much buzz there is on the subject, you might be wondering what 3D printing actually. Also, you might wonder how it will impact your work. Lastly, what is Online Metals is doing about it?

What is 3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing and where did it come from?

In the most basic sense, 3D printing is the process of adding layers of material from a computer controlled device to build an object. This process is also known as Additive Manufacturing (AM). This is to differentiate it from traditional “subtractive manufacturing” where you remove material until it’s the size and shape you want.

With AM, you start with nothing and add until it has become what you want. The phrase “3D Printing” is more common with the media. But “Additive Manufacturing” or “AM” is more common in industrial settings.

It seems like AM has recently sprung into the public consciousness out of nowhere. But that’s not the case. People have been tinkering with such technology since the 1970s. Although it wasn’t until the 1980s that many of the modern technologies were developed. These were further developed  more widespread throughout the 1990s. It has really been post-2010 that 3D Printing / AM have become household terms.

1980's 3D Printer

A picture of one of the first 3D printer’s – 1983 by Chuck Hull.

Types of AM

Fused Deposition Modeling

There are also different types of AM. The most common in use today is known as Fused Deposition Modeling. In this method, plastics, polymers, or even cement, is very carefully ejected from a nozzle to build a layer of the object. As each layer dries, a new layer is placed on top of the previous one. This builds up the three-dimensional shape one very thin layer at a time. This method of AM was developed in 1988 by S. Scott Crump and his company Stratasys.

Fused Deposition Modeling

Visual example of fused deposition modeling


Another common method of printing is known as Stereolithography. This is actually the first AM process invented. The process works by taking a vat full of liquid polymer or resin. This is hit by very precise beams of ultraviolet light. The UV energy causes the polymers to bond to each other and form a solid.

Then the device uses this method to create thin layers of solid polymer built upon one another to create the desired object. Modern Stereolithography was invented in 1981 by Japanese researcher Hideo Kodama. However the process was further refined by researchers in France and the US. It was American researcher Chuck Hull who coined the word Stereolithography when he filed for a patent in 1984 for his device that uses that technology.


Visual example of Stereolithography


The term 3D Printing originally referred to a single type of AM. This model utilized powder beds and inkjet print heads that resembled regular printers. This is where the name came from. But it is now referred to as a “Dot-on-Dot.”

A bed is filled with a layer of powdered plastics or polymers. Precision inkjet nozzles with a binding agent sprays a pattern into the bed. This binds the powder into a solid. A new layer of powder is added and the process is repeated until the object is finished. This process was developed by MIT in 1993 and later commercialized.

Metal Sintering

The newest process is for metal sintering. Probably the most exciting mode for our industry, sintering is AM for metal objects. There are various methods of sintering that are too long for this blog post. But the end result is creating metal objects in a similar fashion to the other methods discussed here.

These processes were developed in the 1990s by researchers at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. But it wasn’t until the 2010 onward that metal components created using AM processes were used in high stress parts like engines, brackets, and large nuts.

3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing and You

How does all of this impact you and your work? Well, it largely depends upon what exactly you want to do. At the moment, AM excels at creating low-cost prototypes, replica pieces, and some lower strength custom components.

However, it is worth noting that the strength of these components is increasing constantly as the technology improves. AM fabricated metal components are being used in high-stress applications. As the technology continues to evolve, this will result in stronger and cheaper components that can be created with less material waste and less time used.

3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing and Online Metals

As you may have guessed, Online Metals now carries material for AM. We will be getting into this expanding field by carrying two products. Both are 3D filament, which is used in the Fused Deposition method of AM. It is made from PLA plastic.

Our first products include a white filament (1.75mm dia) sold in vacuum packed 1 kg spools and a black filament (3mm dia) also sold in vacuum packed 1 kg spools.
This material was selected as it provides a consistent and easy feeding from the machine. Also, it is less prone to warping, and allows very tight tolerances for the items being manufactured. Furthermore, this particular filament is strong, uniform, it can be cut, filed, or glued post printing. It is compatible with most commercially available non-cartridge based printers.

However, it is worth noting that this material cannot be used with acetone. If you try this, it will melt the filament. Lastly, in an effort to be greener, the PLA filament is biodegradable and derived from plant matter, resulting in a lower impact on the environment.

We look forward to the creations that you will devise!